Though it begins in November, 1348, “A Plague Tale: Innocence” has a contemporary flavor. Its most resilient characters are women. Its villain is a corrupt, high ranking church official, and its most powerful character is a little boy who desperately loves his mother but is reliant on his big sister for care. Its potent synthesis of art direction, stealth action gameplay, smart narrative pacing, and high-caliber voice acting imbue it with a spirit of inspiration.
“A Plague Tale” opens on a bright November day in the southwest of France. Soon after Amicia de Rune, a young noblewoman, and her father embark on a hunt, they come across a boar. After Amicia wounds it with a slingshot, it flees deeper into the forest causing the de Rune’s dog to give chase. When Amicia and her father catch up to their dog, they find it clinging with his forepaws outside of a hole in the earth. Before they can do anything for their pet, he’s sucked away. Spooked, the de Runes return to their castle where Amicia’s father sends her to go find her mother. Before Amicia can convey to her mother the scope of her terror, they hear the sound of men marshaling outside. Peeking out a window, they see that a delegation of the Inquisition has been sent to retrieve Amicia’s young brother Hugo upon orders from the Grand Inquisitor.
Amicia barely knows her younger brother because her mother has kept him in seclusion for most of his life. Hugo has a mysterious condition for which his mother, an alchemist, has obsessively been searching for a cure. As the soldiers from the Inquisition begin to methodically slaughter the everyone in the household, Amicia takes her brother’s hand and flees with him. They become orphans in a world wreathed in decay and death.
The siblings set out to find an alchemist trusted by their mother, but when they find the man they see that he is afflicted with the plague. Fortunately, they befriend his young assistant Lucas who agrees to help them look for a cure for Hugo’s condition. Over the course of their adventure, they also become acquainted with a blacksmith and two sibling outlaws. The relationships between the young people are deftly developed. A particular strength of the game is that it alternates between perilous action and periods of reflection where the characters process the changes they’ve observed in the world and in themselves. Rarely in adventure games do corpses affect the heroes to this extent. Among other things, I enjoyed watching Amicia’s transformation from an understandably hurried guardian to a compassionate, selflessly devoted sister.
Besides the Inquisition, the other threat the kids regularly face are masses of rats which can devour people or animals in seconds. Heaven help you if musophobia (the fear of mice and rats) is an issue. There are tidal waves of rodents that must be passed through on the way to a nightmarish showdown that involves floods of warring rodents — one of the more riveting final boss fights I’ve encountered in some time.
As Amicia and Hugo progress in their adventure, she accumulates a range of things that can be used with her slingshot. Though Amicia can kill a helmetless man with a rock, other enemies require more finesse. Lucas, the young alchemist, teaches her how to craft “Devorantis,” a projectile that causes those struck in the head by it to hastily remove their helmets, which are transformed into veritable ovens. Amicia can also throw projectiles that light embers, snuff out fires, and draw rats to certain places. The rats in her world are repelled by light. Amicia can work this to her advantage by extinguishing enemies’ torches to allow the rats to do their dirty work.
The checkpoints in the game are generous and most human enemies are less-than-bloodhounds. There were times when I simply ran past armed fighters and hit a checkpoint that caused my troubles to miraculously evaporate. All the same, I enjoyed making use of the abilities at my disposal and I was struck by how well the spaces in the game are designed to give the impression that one is traveling through enormous areas even though the pathways are fairly snug. I played “A Plague Tale: Innocence” on an Xbox One X hooked up to Samsung 4K QLED TV and was thoroughly taken by the game’s visuals. There is a painterly quality to it that reminds me of “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.” Both games use photogrammetry — a process that allows one to convert photos into usable digital assets- — to achieve their conspicuous fidelity.
“A Plague Tale: Innocence”is an adventure that might give more than a few people a justifiable reason to call out sick.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.